With just days left before the City of Santa Monica’s temporary outdoor dining ordinance — enacted in a rush during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — expires, to be replaced by a long term outdoor use ordinance, local service workers and restaurateurs are making an 11th-hour pitch to retain the right to serve food at tables placed on the roadway that runs through the Third Street Promenade downtown, but so far, the city has indicated it will not change course.

Proponents of the current outdoor rules, which allow Promenade businesses to operate on the thoroughfare’s sidewalks and streets, appeared en masse at the Tuesday, Sept. 13, Santa Monica City Council meeting to voice their request that the current rules be extended through February 2023. 

Open meeting laws dictated that councilmembers could not comment on the request during the meeting, as it had not been placed on the agenda. The next day, city staff confirmed the request was not set to be agendized in a future meeting, indicating that it was likely the ordinance would end on Sept. 30 as currently planned. 

“This is not related to a forthcoming agenda item,” Santa Monica Spokesperson Constance Farrell wrote in an email. 

The issue comes down to fire access. Although the Promenade is not regularly used for vehicular traffic, the Santa Monica Fire Department requires ingress and egress down the road in case of a fire or another emergency; water access along the promenade is located on Third Street, not the alleyways behind the businesses.

According to Santa Monica Fire Code, “Fire apparatus access roads shall have an unobstructed width of not less than 20 feet (6096 mm), except for approved security gates in accordance with Section 503.6, and an unobstructed vertical clearance of 13 feet 6 inches (4115 mm).”

The fire code requires a 20-foot-wide clearance for emergency vehicles, but a fountain and sculpture placed in the center of the Promenade in front of 1212 Santa Monica, an upscale restaurant near Wilshire Boulevard, splits the lanes, making strict adherence to the code impossible — a fact at least one speaker brought up during the comment period on Tuesday night.

“If the fire code is the reason to eliminate the outside dining, we propose moving the fountain and the dinosaur to the Palisades Park,” Toru Toyokawa, chief financial officer for 1212 Santa Monica, said during public comment. “Even … without the outside dining, we might still be in violation of the fire code because fire code requires 20 feet [of] clearance on the road. We only have 11 feet on both sides, so we might technically be in violation even if outside dining would go away.”

Others who spoke at the meeting pointed out the high vacancy rate along the Promenade and called 1212 an anchor that would draw visitors to the shopping district.

Representatives from 1212 Santa Monica claimed the business will be forced to lay off up to 60 employees should the rules come into place, as the restaurant has expanded dozens of tables outside its pre-pandemic operations using the current fee-free temporary outdoor use model.

The new dining rules that begin Oct. 1 would allow 1212 Santa Monica and other Promenade businesses to operate on sidewalks, but block them from using streets. It will also include fees, which had been waived for the past two years, including a one-time $1,358.49 per seat wastewater fee for outdoor dining.

“With the permanent program, public safety is paramount, and outdoor operations need to be consistent with all fire safety and ADA requirements,” Farrell said in a city statement provided to the Daily Press. “Specific to the Promenade, dining in the fire lane (the roadway) inhibits the Fire Department’s ability to access businesses in the event of a fire or other emergency. The City is working with businesses that are currently operating in the roadway to transition to extended sidewalk dining options that will help ensure business operations protect patrons, the public, and the Promenade while also supporting Santa Monica’s economic recovery.”

Part of that business outreach includes a public program scheduled for Friday, Sept. 16, on Main Street. The pop-up event is designed to inform business owners and residents about the new rules and “celebrate the launch” of a permanent Santa Monica Outdoors program. It was set to run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the parklet at 2905 Main Street.